Posts Tagged ‘John Eliot Gardiner’

My A-Z of Reading: M is for Music

December 2, 2016

People read music, I know; I don’t, I can’t: it might as well be Martian. Music is something I’ve roundly failed at, from being unable to play the recorder at primary school to being bribed not to sing at secondary school (my voice broke very early, and I am tone deaf). But I have always loved listening to music, and reading about music and musicians, and reading a good book whilst listening to good music, perhaps accompanied by a good drink, does take a lot of beating.

I grew up with pop music, graduated to rock, then moved on to classical and jazz, which is where I have stopped; if I were restricted to one composer only it would be JS Bach. I’ve often wondered about the nature of genius, and found myself thinking about Shakespeare’s magical mastery of our language, and Bach’s similar wondrous musical skills. Both, it seems, could just create – plays pouring from Shakespeare’s pen onto the page and thence to the stage; cantatas regular as clockwork every Sunday from Bach’s pen to manuscript to the stunning Thomanerchor

I’ve read a lot about Bach, his life and music in an attempt to learn and understand, and it’s been quite hard. Obviously the biographical stuff I can follow, and the origins and sources of his musical ideas, and the religious themes that he explores and develops, but whenever a writer moves on to analysing and writing about the music itself, I find that I’m completely out of my depth. I used to resent this mental block I clearly have, but now I have come to accept it, and realise that the music remains special, even magical for me, and I don’t have to be able to understand it for it to give me intense pleasure.

When I visited Bach’s Thuringia a couple of years ago, I took John Eliot Gardiner’s Music in the Castle of Heaven to read; I probably understood only about half of it, but it did take my understanding and appreciation of the musician and his music a bit further. I have found Malcolm Boyd’s Oxford Composer Companion to Bach an invaluable reference book over the years, and Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts is a wonderful companion which offers an interlinear translation as well as links to all the related Bible passages from which the master took his inspiration. Alfred Durr’s The Cantatas of JS Bach is finally coming in to its own (as it should, given the price of the English translation of the book).

Shakespeare, for me, touches the spirit with words or through words, summoning powerful responses to characters and situations. Yes, the situations he puts his characters in, and how he has them behave, are part of what evokes my responses, but the ways they use words – Shakespeare’s words, ultimately – to communicate their feelings, are a major part of their effect and my response. With music and with Bach, it is different. There are words – religious words, but in German – which conjure up feelings and ideas, but it’s the musical notes, the tunes that allow the words to achieve their powerful effect. And I am lost for words, whether watching Shakespeare or listening to Bach.

Long Reads…

September 23, 2014

I have a (very large) pile of books that sit waiting to be read, and gradually work my way through them, often picking the next one on a whim; books get added as one book suggests the need or desire to read another. And then, there’s a small, select pile of large tomes, that are waiting to be read one day. These are different from the rest: I know they need concentration, or a long stretch of time – such as a holiday – to enable me to get through them. I don’t mean this to sound like a chore, as it isn’t.

So I had saved up John Eliot Gardiner’s biography of Bach (see my previous post) since last Christmas (it was a present) deliberately for the holiday I recently took in Saxony and Thuringia in the footsteps of the composer. As I remarked, it was a challenging read, and it took me over a fortnight. I normally get through books rather more rapidly than that. I have on my shelves a couple of enormous French tomes, one on deserts, one on travel in Russia – over a thousand pages in each anthology – which I’m saving up for the right moment, probably another long holiday somewhere.

I wondered if other readers select books like this, and also found myself thinking about my attention span. I’ve read a good deal lately suggesting that the internet, browsing and hypertext links are perhaps reducing our attention spans (I think the jury is still out on this one, really) and when I was teaching in schools I noticed how textbooks were changing, no longer presenting students with chapters of text to read, but double-page spreads, with lots of little boxes in different colours, nothing in any real depth or detail, skimming the surface of a topic. I use the internet a lot, and cannot imagine life without it: am I less able to concentrate on longer and more demanding texts? Too bad, if that is the case, I guess.

Confession: there are books, bought with the thought ‘that looks really interesting…’ that continue to sink down the unread pile, and which, if I’m really honest, will never be read, and ought to be given to a charity shop. There are one or two books on my bookshelves which have been there, unopened, for half a lifetime…

John Eliot Gardiner: Music in the Castle of Heaven

September 20, 2014

9780713996623 I’ve recently fulfilled a 30-year-old ambition, and visited the sites in Germany linked to J S Bach, and I took this book along as suitable reading to accompany my exploration. It’s a difficult book, especially for someone like me who loves music but has very little musical knowledge or understanding and plays no instrument; it’s a rewarding book which I read slowly and know that I can and will come back to in smaller doses as I re-listen to Bach’s music.

Gardiner takes his own track through the composer’s life and musical development, seeking to and succeeding in demolishing some of the hagiography that surrounds Bach. The focus is on his church music in particular, which suited me, as that has always been at the heart of my enjoyment of Bach. It’s highly contextual, which I found extremely helpful – all sorts of information is brought in to explain and enlighten aspects of Bach’s life and work, and Gardiner does benefit from all the latest research into the composer’s life and career (one of the things I found most eye-opening on my trip was just how much is still to be found/ discovered/ worked out).

That the book is also written by a performer – and a very distinguished one – with a love of the church music at the heart of all he does, was significant to me, and provided plenty of new insights for this uneducated reader. So, not an easy read, and probably not one to start with in an exploration of Bach, but nevertheless highly recommended.

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